This is the story of a cow femur. And some behemoths who like to eat worms. And a receiver who has trouble with high fives, a free safety named Pugsly and the rest of the Montana State football team, whose recent performance chart looks like a dangerous EKG report. The Bobcats were a dismal 1-10 in 1983, catapulted to 12-2 and a Division I-AA national championship in '84, then plummeted right back to earth with a 2-9 record last year for the widest consecutive swings of fortune in the history of the college game.
In 1983 the Montana State offense scored only nine touchdowns all season. "We'd get a turnover and give it right back," remembers free safety Doug Kimball (known as Pugsly because of his resemblance to a character on the old TV show The Addams Family). "One time I intercepted a pass on the opponent's 15. The offense came out on the field, lost yardage on a couple of plays, picked up a penalty or two and we ended up punting. We'd go back on the field laughing, it was such a joke."
Every week offensive coordinator Craig Clark tried something new, and each week his frustration grew. At one practice he simply stopped talking, crawled up onto the film tower and pouted. "I think he had a nervous breakdown, I really do," said defensive end Tex Sikora. "He got to the point where he didn't comb his hair. He didn't take a bath. He just gave up."
"The moving vans were circling my house like the Indians circled Custer," said Dave Arnold, then in his first season as head coach after two years as an assistant at Michigan State. "My eight-year-old started crying, 'I don't want to move again.' "
Local TV producer Rip Cook scraped together a "highlight" film—mostly jarring defensive plays—then couldn't resist assembling a more accurate version, which he set to the Beatles' Help!
So what happened the next season? "I'll never understand it," says defensive coordinator Mike Kramer, who is known as Psycho because of the look in his eyes when he talks about hitting. The team had pretty much the same personnel going into 1984, with the exception of a redshirt sophomore named Kelly Bradley, who took over at quarterback. On the coaching level, Arnold hired a new offensive coordinator, Bill Diedrick, a cheerful fellow who had designed the No. 1 offense in the NAIA the year before at Whitworth College in Spokane. Diedrick installed a frilly short-pass offense—tight ends in motion, backs becoming receivers, etc.—with a running attack the previous year's offense had lacked. But no one expected any miracles.
"We figured if we finished above .500 that would be an accomplishment," recalls Bradley, and the season started out pretty much that way. After a win over tiny Mesa ( Colo.) College, the Bobcats dropped 17 passes and missed four field goals to lose 21-16 to Eastern Washington. They beat Idaho 34-28, but then lost 22-6 to Idaho State as Bradley threw four interceptions. "I thought, Here it goes again," says Kimball. Except that this time, even with the mistakes, the offense was averaging 417 yards a game.
Arnold told the team to relax and start believing in itself. For his part, Bradley took every play out of the playbook and drew it on paper, relearning each one (about 30 runs and 150 passes) inside out "so I'd know what I was doing."
Up to then, Bradley had been just another quarterback. He had come out of Zumbrota, Minn. (pop. 2,000), where he had spent his summers driving a peacutter for Libby's. He was good-sized (6'3", 195 pounds) and had a rocket arm but wasn't a sure starter after spring practice in '84. "I never thought of Kelly as the real thing," says receiver Tom White, who has probably had his own share of doubters. He's listed in the program as 5'10" and 155, and no one believes either stat.
But after the Idaho State loss, something started to click. The Bobcats beat Weber State 48-0 and then edged Nevada-Reno 44-41 in four overtimes. Next they walloped the Portland State Vikings 45-22. "As good an exhibition of quarterbacking as I've ever seen," said Viking coach Don Read, who had coached Dan Fouts at Oregon.